The Hotel Intercontinental is a favourite of those whose tab is being picked up by a taxpayer, and has everything that one could possibly want, except character.
Dr Lowell storms through the lobby, barely glancing at the concierge as he makes his way to the lifts and his over-manicured room. "Operator", he snaps into the telephone, "Get me the Fine Art Museum".
The Sorokins are late, which is unfortunate. It gives Dr. Lowell too much time to think. At least sitting in the restaurant disorienting enough to keep his mind off the briefing earlier in the day. And other things.
An Italian restaurant? In Tashkent? Really? Why? And why did they call it “Allegro”? Wishful thinking? The place has a particularly gluey cheer, injection-molded jetset stylings powered by CIS labor. He works his way through one set of antipasto and tries to maintain a sense of place. This is definitely real, he tells himself, and orders a second platter. Where have they got to? I could be up my room trying to raise K.A.R. down in Islamabad instead of waiting here; he probably has the inside scoop on this Kulal figure. Is there a reason they’re this late? Could there be… something going on no one has told me about?
And then they arrive: Genrikh and Yelizabeta Sorokin, early ‘50s, Moscow Institute for Oriental Studies-trained, now at the State Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan and the National University of Uzbekistan, respectively. They both look peaceful and happy and contented and tenured and William has to master an urge to grovel for a job offer.
Warm greetings are exchanged, apéritifs for the Sorokins are ordered, and they sit down to catch up on life since the last time they met, nearly a year ago.
"So sorry we're late", Genrikh comments. "We were held up by one of the locals - a thug from the political police. He was looking for you, actually - wanted to know who you were, how we knew you, what you were doing, snoop snoop. Rather put out when we said we were going to meet you here, not at work - I don't think his salary covers the dress code here!"
Lowell puts as good a spin on his activities as he can, but is wary; Russian academics have better bullshit detectors than Western ones. At least professionally; alas, both the Sorokins are as enamored of New Age crackpottery as ever. Your swami had a vision this spring of a “solar city of the racial omphalos” appearing in the Taklamakan, you don’t say? How strange, when they’re so grounded with the real facts of their own specialties. (What the hell is a “racial omphalos”, anyway? No. No. Don’t ask.)
By the time menus arrive, the three have established that they all know about the tomb-robbing incident and William’s position in the investigation, and that if more intellectuals were given real power these kinds of things would never happen. William checks out the mostly-empty dining room. Mostly empty; nearest is the towering, bony woman in the lemon dress sitting with her back to them, table for one. Drag queen? Surely not. Looks odd though. This is — Tashkent, yes; in Tashkent now. Does that look like Central Asia out the window? It must.
Thinking of that horrible old dingbat | John Allegro, William scans the menu for something fungus-rich; it seems only appropriate. His higher functions veer off to silently excoriate that ignorant fruitcake’s imitations of philology… Sumerian “phonemes” infiltrating the Semitic languages with their “semantics” intact? And yet people lap it up. Worthless. Worthless scum. Yes, that will do nicely. They order; he plies the Sorokins with more wine. He feels his presence is false, somehow; everything is a little uncomfortable. Like those dreams where you find you’ve gone to school without any clothes on.
Yet over dinner he dutifully runs down a list of questions he’s formulated, hoping not to seem too inquisitorial. Not that the Sorokins would necessarily notice or care; they’re certainly pounding down the chianti, he observes with distain. (They, for their part, are perhaps politely revolted by the vast quantities of food that disappear down the petite American’s gullet.)
Genrikh confirms that the Tomb of Timur has been open to the public as a tourist attraction for some years now, so the robbers could have easily scoped out the scene in advance, inside and out. On the other hand, the odds of there being any relics or valuables hidden there unknown to the authorities which the thieves made off with – not likely at all. Foreign or local tourists? Lowell asks. Genrikh shrugs. Both.
As to the contents of the tomb – according to both the Sorokins, nothing but the same two bodies originally recorded by Mikhail Gerasimov’s group in 1943, back in winding-cloths. They haven’t been touched since then. “The curse? Worried about the Germans invading again?” Lowell teases – then wishing he’d not smirked so broadly: the Sorokins probably believe in that, too. But they sniff haughtily. “Perhaps the uneducated masses believe that’s why this tomb hasn’t been investigated since then then. And, if you will excuse me, let's clear that here we are speaking of the uneducated masses of Russia as well as the Uzbeks. The explanation is simple: there’s nothing further to be investigated. The structure was clearly intended for Timur, or at least an immediate member of his family, but equally clearly was never finished or received its intended occupant. The bodies found instead – unknown but also unremarkable. Perhaps the doctors today, these genetic biologists, would be interested in them, but for scholars? No, no, really the book is closed on this site.”
Yelizabeta chips in: “And it’s a national disgrace that stupid and ignorant people are able to publish statements like the opening of the tomb in 1943 came before the Nazi attack on the motherland.” They all laugh warmly at the stupidity of the common man.
“Anyone around these parts still alive, who took part in the opening of the tomb?” William asks as an afterhought. But they shrug eloquently again. Maybe common laborers or neighborhood slum children, Genrikh scoffs. “But people of that sort couldn’t provide anything of use, you know, even if any are still alive.” William hesitates but lets it go and moves on.
Yelizabeta is already pouring her scorn on the idea of a curse attached to the tomb – “And this so-called inscription that is supposed to be on the tombstone, ‘If I were alive, people would not be glad’ – what nonsense! You know as well as I do that doesn’t even sound remotely like something a Persian or Turk of that era would have written, but is exactly the sort of thing attributed to, say, Ivan the Terrible.” Dr. Lowell purses his lips slightly at this but (uncharacteristically) chooses not to disagree. “No; clearly all this nonsense was made up in the Soviet years to entertain the Russian readers of popular books and newspapers for the semi-literate.”
Lowell thinks the U.S. government will be paying for a lot of dinner in return for very little information, it seems. But at least it confirms his own opinion of the “mission”: all sound and fury, signifying nothing. A tempest in an teapot. A teacup. An empty teacup. He looks around the hollow box of the Allegro again as if to reassure himself the walls are there. Ugly cream-colored wallpaper with pastel pseudo-Italianate floral patterns writhing like graffiti.
Which reminds him – perhaps the teacup is not entirely empty. What about the other artifacts from the region that have been stolen here and there around the world, including the manuscripts? Do his esteemed colleagues have any thoughts about — Aha. The Sorokins’ shutters come slamming down immediately.
Carefully, diplomatically, more wine? – yes, another bottle, why not – he pries them back a little. Finally, Genrikh implies that ‘certain factors’ at the museum give rise to a ‘certain involvement’ in the export of 'certain cultural artifacts' from the country without ‘certain niceties’ of legal form. But the smuggling of antiques back into Uzbekistan? They look skeptical. To be sure, they read about the fire in that private museum in Amsterdam, that seemed to be an attempt to cover up the theft of — what was it, a case of Silk Road coinage and a Timurid star chart? And some similar crimes have been heard of, even from here in Uzbekistan. But the oligarchs – “Russian oligarchs, I mean, not Uzbek oligarchs” Yelizabeta insists with only a trace of a wink – who might be acquiring these items for their private collections through the use of force, they’re certainly not going to involve any local museums or institutes. Why would they? That wouldn’t make any sense, don’t you agree? And William is forced to concede the point. Bitterly. What about the manuscripts? Sassanid manuscripts. What are they? Where can I find them? How can you not have anything to tell me?
“Wouldn’t you say the secrecy behind Gerasimov’s operation was out of the ordinary?” Lowell asks slyly. “Even its historical situation, it seems strange to me, as a foreigner. Or perhaps especially in that historical situation, in wartime? Surely Stalin must have had his reasons for suppressing the documentation…” But neither Sorokin will take the bait, and they irritably advise him to go to Moscow and take a look in the archives there. (I wish I could, instead of this field trip tomorrow with the kids on the short bus, he wants to say.) No, they’re more interested in telling him more about their spiritual advisor’s insights into the astral city soon to manifest itself here in the heart of Eurasia, in the deep flats of the desert: the real Shambala. Not in the mountains, like some silly Chinaman’s fairytale…
As Yelizabeta says that, for a brief instant, William has a vivid sense-memory of Baltistan: barley and his own body odor and birdcall of some kind, and painfully white clouds stretching both behind and in front of mountain peaks, and the weight of his tape recorder in his right jacket pocket. Strangely, it helps to snap him out of the sense of itchy unreality he’s suffered through all evening… all day, really. Genrikh is nodding enthusiastically to Yelizabeta’s speculations on a cleansing of the world of the unenlightened. William forces an interested smile. Perhaps he can still reach Slava in Moscow and get him to find out what the newly-opened archives might from on the Gerasimov business.
Politely as he can, he brings the evening to a close. Honestly, these Russian academics, they’re such elitists. And weird!
Back in his room, Dr. Lowell checks email and finds that his old grad school friend Karim, now a professor back in Pakistan – unfair advantage he has, really – has written him back with a decent rundown on | Amir Kulal. It seems there has been some confusion: both he and his grandfather shared the same names, and while both were key advisors to Timurid rulers it was the grandfather who was buried at Shahr-i-sabz. He’d founded the Dor-i-Tilavat madrasa, the House of Meditation, there; it’s probably why (Karim opines) Timur built all the rest of it in later years – the Aq Sarai, Jehangir’s tomb, all the rest of it. The grandson was planted near Bukhara. A minor player by comparison, only important because he was the one alive in Timur’s time.
Apparently the family were key spiritual mentors to Timur's family since their grandparents' generation; very important figures at court. More intriguingly, old K.A.R. points out that President Karimov’s casting of himself as the spiritual heir of Timur (however coy and hesitant he has been about it) exposes him to attacks on Timurid heritage. E.g, hasn’t it already been publicly noted that he promised to rebuild more Timurid tombs, but nothing to show for it yet? Perhaps robbing the grave of Amir Kulal (any Amir Kulal) is a swipe at Karimov? He’s not exactly sure how that fits together, politically, with Karimov’s base vs. the ‘Islamists’ of Uzbekistan.
But it’s an idea to keep an eye on. Along with that government minder – what’s his name? Sharif, Sharaf, something Bukhari. Maybe he’s not just there to round up tour busses and cold drinks.
As Lowell falls twitchily toward sleep, his thoughts continue to bound across their spectacular mental landscape. Timur always claimed to want to conquer China, always found excuses not to, and in the end, when it seemed he was actually preparing to invade the world’s largest and richest country, he suddenly died. Who’s robbing Sassanian-through-Timurid artifacts in the West and smuggling them back to Central Asia? I need to get more cats to keep tabs on that mincing poltergeist in my house. Did that woman at Allegro in the billowy dress ever turn around? Could have sworn she was slumped down at the table when we left. Chinese involvement in all this can’t be overlooked. What’s the Sogdian word for ‘elephant’? Explain that spirantization, if you —No, no, not the kangaroo! How many roots has 'pistachio'? Blowing the moon through Baltistan. But it’s so flat.
Morning, Day 2
At a disgustingly early hour, Lowell bounds out of bed, wondering how much actual work he can get done before the rest of the team shepherds him out to Shahr-i-sabz.
The lobby is empty. Even the surveillance legman that he'd expected to see after talking to the Sorokins last night is nowhere to be seen. Disgraceful! And his cell phone is silent and message-free. Perhaps there's time to go shopping — book shopping. There's that one store he visited last year that just might have something useful for this job…
On a remarkably clear line (thank gods for satellite phones) Mattias Fjäder says:
"Good Morning! We are heading out in three hours, have you got everything you need?"
Dr. Lowell looks around the hotel lobby. Screw it. This isn't the Tashkent I remember, anyway. "Yes, ready when you are. Let's go see the scene of the crime." He heads for the main door… detouring only to buy a pair of sunglasses and a bag of candy at the gift shop.